Has the ‘polycrisis’ overwhelmed us?

Today’s global crises are not only competing for policymakers’ finite attention, they are increasingly feeding one another in unpredictable ways. Add the uncertainty around this year’s high-stakes elections in the US and elsewhere, and you have a recipe for a Davos meeting defined by angst and paralysis

Attendees gather at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos from Jan. 15 until Jan. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Attendees gather at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos from Jan. 15
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Markus Schreiber

This year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos was even more exhausting and bewildering than usual. Politicians love to say that you should never let a crisis go to waste, but even they seemed overwhelmed by a conference agenda that aimed to capture the full sweep of today’s ‘polycrisis’.

The issue is not just that individual problems become more difficult to solve when there are many of them at once. It is that today’s crises are increasingly feeding one another and competing with one another for attention. Against the backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions and the escalating conflict in the Middle East, Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea have become a source of unease across the global economy. Making matters worse, drought conditions in central America – a byproduct of both cyclical weather patterns and the longer-run effects of climate change – have simultaneously curtailed shipping through the Panama Canal.

In Gaza, the humanitarian consequences of the war have worsened by the day, with the Palestinian death toll now exceeding 25,000. On panel after panel at Davos, US officials and assorted European and Arab diplomats outlined their visions for stopping the war through regional integration and a two-state solution.

At a time of waning American and European support for Ukraine’s defence, all this attention on the Middle East has left Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky desperately trying to put his country back on the strategic map. Just ahead of the conference, Zelensky organised a meeting of national security advisers, to whom he delivered an impassioned keynote speech. Ukrainian officials were then dispatched to participate in discussions on everything from artificial intelligence to global trade, always finding ways to tie the issue back to the war in Ukraine.

Ultimately, there was widespread agreement about what it would take to address the crises in both Ukraine and the Middle East. With respect to Gaza, the five key ingredients are: a deal to free the remaining Israeli hostages; progress towards regional normalisation between Israel and its Arab neighbours; a realistic pathway towards a two-state solution; a regional effort to revitalise the Palestinian Authority; and a suspension of open hostility on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

As for Ukraine, US secretary of state Antony Blinken, in a conversation with journalist Thomas Friedman, argued that the country would need to maintain a sense of perspective regarding EU and NATO membership. But Blinken also thinks that the West has a responsibility to put Ukraine on a sound military, economic, and democratic footing. That all sounds eminently reasonable, but the biggest challenge is reconciling aspirations with political realities in this year of high-stakes elections. While Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian president Vladimir Putin seem determined to stick around forever, the reality is that Blinken himself could be a private citizen a year from now.

Weighing heavily on the audience’s mind was the crisis of American democracy. Donald Trump may not have been physically present in Davos, but that did not stop him from looming over the proceedings. Many questioned whether the Biden administration had enough political capital to pursue the solutions proposed by Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. And even if they can pursue their policy preferences, what would happen to them if Trump wins?

Donald Trump may not have been physically present in Davos, but that did not stop him from looming over the proceedings

Of all the competing crises, however, the one that stole the show was artificial intelligence. All the biggest names in the industry were there, including Sam Altman of OpenAI, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, and DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman – among many others. In weighing the opportunities and risks involved, everyone present agreed that AI represents an entirely new – and, indeed, unprecedented – challenge.

There was no shortage of serious discussions about AI regulation, the appropriate role of the state, and what advancements to expect next. But I was most struck by the level of disagreement on how important AI will prove to be. While Suleyman and his fellow technologists believe that it is as consequential as fire or electricity, historian Niall Ferguson has argued that AI – like crypto – has been completely overhyped.

Just as social media competes for individuals’ attention, so do global crises. As new, unexpected variables interact with one another in unpredictable ways, a sense of overload complicates the search for solutions. The fact that 2024 is an election super year – with 4 billion people eligible to vote in more than 70 jurisdictions – adds even more uncertainty.

It is no surprise that people are anxious. A major new poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that the five big crises of the past 15 years (the post-2008 global recession, the 2015 migration crisis, covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and climate change) have split Europeans into “crisis tribes”. In the process, they have forged new, frequently competing political identities.

We often complain that the politicians, business leaders, and diplomats who huddle annually in Davos are out of touch with everyday people. But in today’s attention economy, they are just as confused as the people they are meant to represent.

This article was first published in Project Syndicate on 26 January 2024.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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